Watching Eat the Poor is like a bit like listening to Rage Against the Machine, if you listen to Rage Against the Machine like I do, which involves a lot of righteous head banging and then hearing the odd phrase which makes you ask “Wait, what is this one about exactly?” This process sends you back to the lyrics, back to the Wikipedia, and then back to the song – headbanging only slightly less enthusiastically, not because the track isn’t on point, but because unbridled enthusiasm suddenly looks a little less cool.
Unbridled enthusiasm would probably describe my reaction to most of Jonny & The Baptists: Eat the Poor. They have a song about totalitarian swans. They have a song asking why we don’t bury Thatcher every week, so positive was the effect of the pageantry. They make repeated jokes at the expense of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who flew from New York to London last year especially to vote in the House of Lords (something he has rarely bothered to do before) in favour of tax credit cuts for low-income workers.
Jonny Donahoe opens the show by saying that the biggest driver of inequality in Britain is inherited wealth. He closes the show by saying the same thing, and points out that his and his bandmate Paddy Gervers’ and their director Will Young’s parents are all coming to see the show, and their message to them is “Give it away. All of it. Okay, most of it”. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ “Give It Away” even plays as we leave The Roundabout at Summerhall.
This message about inherited wealth being a huge driving force behind our current extreme levels of poverty and inequality is both a good one and a difficult one to hear. It is a difficult one to hear personally, if you have wealthy parents, or are a wealthy parent. It is a difficult one also to bring together with prevailing notions of how life and society work too. Other leftist notions like nationalising public services and instituting progressive taxes are (in my highly privileged position) far easier to bear. The question brings into focus expected lifespan and those sociological ephemera which are loosely pinned to it, like career, like retirement, like legacy. The idea of not passing on your estate is an idea that is disruptive to the way people expect their lives to work, what they might choose to do with them.
I think that disruption is a good thing, almost certainly. But Jonny and The Baptists’ show doesn’t really explore this question. It tops and tails their show, which professes to be about it, but the sandwich filling doesn’t actually dramatise or even deal with that issue.
Their tale is one of inequality writ small: the locus on attention reduced to the band itself. We push into the future, past Jonny & The Baptists’ current show and watch as Jonny takes a job writing lyrics on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical – hugely successful trash which earns him millions. Paddy’s live takes a different turn: without Jonny and the act, he’s left struggling for income and it isn’t long before he’s on the streets. Jonny turns his back on his friend – just as Jonny had warned us at the start of the show, when he said that studies like this one showed that the rich are shown to be less empathetic than the poor. They are reunited by the inevitable revolution which comes as inequality grows to breaking point, and they live – of course – in fear of the totalitarian swans.
The humour is fantastic, and unashamedly left-wing, while still being critical of recent Labour governments as well as the coalition and Tory regimes. The lyrics are silly and Andrew Lloyd Clever, and the easy rapport that both Jonny and Paddy have with their audience allows them to lurch between Diana jokes and heartfelt songs in seconds. I was headbanging (smiling, nodding, laughing) all the way through the hour. But they pulled at a particular thread – inherited wealth – which is both complicated and fertile territory, and I think their routine is robust enough to delve a little deeper.